Siberian Lights is a female centric theatre company set up in 2015 by four Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama graduates. They are Arabella Neale, Ellie Heydon, Charlotte Merriam and Olivia Elsden. A couple of months ago I sat down with them to discuss the company and their experiences as creative women working in the arts industry.
ME: Today I’m here with three of the lovely ladies from Siberian Lights and firstly they’re going to tell me a little bit more about the company and how they got started. We’ve got Bella, Olivia and Charlotte here, we’re just missing Ellie who is unfortunately working today.
So Bella, would you like to start and tell us about your role within Siberian Lights?
BELLA: We work together sort of as a group and it’s all very collaborative, but mostly I tend to work on casting, so for all of the productions and readings that we’ve done, we’ll get in the self-taped auditions and I’ll watch through all 400 (laughs), and end up casting them. It’s really fun, I’ve actually grown to love it…I enjoy seeing someone’s tape and thinking, wow I could help put you on stage, I could get you in that part, and I think that’s so exciting to know that you can give people a platform, I love that.
OLIVIA: I mainly do the social media, all the promotional stuff like organising the events, so I’ll often be on the door for those, I love that job, really love that job. But yeah basically all the stuff that leads up to an event, that’s what I’ll be doing. And then helping out with everything else like Bella said.
ME: And Charlotte?
CHARLOTTE: Well my current project is being the in-house writer for Siberian Lights, so we’re currently working on building up to our first show that I’ve written, we’ll be doing a rehearsed reading of that in July. That’s my main aim at the moment, to make that good!
ME: As Ellie’s not here can you say a bit about her role too?
BELLA: Ellie has directed most, if not all, of the pieces we’ve performed, and she also is the admin queen, literally if you ever send an email asking for more info it will be Ellie replying. I’ve genuinely never met anyone who is so good at admin!
CHARLOTTE: Like, sickeningly good!
ME: You may all want to jump in on this one, but does one of you want to explain in a bit more detail exactly what Siberian Lights is and how you got started?
BELLA: Well we’re Royal Welsh graduates and we were all part of the same year group, and we’d kind of just seen so many ridiculously talented actresses leave the college and just be struggling to either get any work at all, or work that really challenged them or excited them, and they felt that they were quite limited by the roles they were being given. So it was one of those things that we started considering whilst we were still at college, and then afterwards we came out and felt like we wanted to create an environment that was creatively stimulating. And you know London (in particular) can be a very lonely place, especially as an actor when you come out of a long course and suddenly you’re out there all on your own, and we wanted people to feel and be aware of the fact that we’re all in the same position and that when you come together you can make something really brilliant. So that’s really the premise behind Siberian Lights, we’ve created a space for people to effectively network, and also have opportunities to flex their acting muscles and make sure they’re keeping up to date with everything that’s going on. A nice example is that on our website we have a calendar where we put up any events we’re going to, like shows that other SL members are in, so it acts like a support network too.
We do rehearsed readings, we do effectively scratch nights, we do workshops with casting directors and different people from the industry. We also obviously do full scale productions, like Charlotte’s play which we’re working on at the moment which is really exciting. (laughs) Have I missed anything?
CHARLOTTE: Well that’s quite a lot to be fair! Eventually I think our aim is to be able to produce more than one play at a time with lots of people involved in it that are incredible, talented women.
OLIVIA: At the moment we’re still building the blocks to get to that point, increasing our network, and also making sure we’re talking to all the women we work with and that come to see our things, to see what they want and what they’re looking for out of being a woman in the industry, so that when we eventually get to where we want to be we’ve got all the ingredients to create something that’s really going to make a difference.
ME: I also want to ask about the name SIBERIAN LIGHTS, because it’s obviously pretty unusual, and it would be interesting to hear why you chose it.
BELLA: It’s probably one of the questions we get asked the most I think! It actually came from something Denise Gough, who we absolutely love, would say in quite a few interviews; she basically got it from this story about Ewan McGregor when he was in Siberia filming something and he was really depressed, hating his life and just wanting to be with his family, and then later when he was back in San Francisco (I think) filming something else he was on a motorbike and he went underneath a truck and was clipped by it but came out the other end, and everyone was saying “Oh my god I thought you were going to die! How did you get through this?” And his reply was, “it’s because of Siberia, because I learnt to ride the bike properly.” So basically from that crappy situation there had been a silver lining. There are amazing things that come out of hard times, and what Denise Gough said in the interview was that we’ve all got our little tents in Siberia but if we just poke our heads out we can have a party, and I just love that. That’s what I think we want to do, bring everyone out of their tents and have a giant creative party!
ME: Denise Gough does the Honest Actors podcast right?
BELLA: Yeah she does. She talks about this in that, it’s really great. When I met her I think I even told her that she inspired the name of our company. Biggest fan! And she was like “Somebody help me.” Haha.
ME: Now as well as the company you each do your own thing in terms of being actors, writers, and directors outside of it. How do you find the balance between the two, because I’m sure there are people who would really struggle with trying to have their own career and then also running a theatre company and all the organisation and energy that requires?
CHARLOTTE: Well, as demonstrated… it’s very difficult! Especially at the moment, it’s one of those situations where we do all really need to be together, because it’s a project where we’re all acting and working on the material, so it’s just really difficult. And you know it just depends on who’s doing a job at any one time, so like at the moment Ellie’s directing for two weeks, and I’ve been filming in such weird patches, and Bella…
BELLA: I’m going on loads of random holidays at the moment!
CHARLOTTE: Exactly, and she also had a big block of months where she was in a show at the National so she wasn’t free for ages, so all of us have periods where we’re really difficult (laughs). But what we’ve talked about a lot is just the communication, making sure we’re all aware of what’s going on all the time, and that’s the key to it really. It is tricky though!
BELLA: It’s hard work, but there are also benefits, like it’s difficult at the moment because of this specific project needing all four of us so totally, but with other stuff, say if we put on a reading and we’re all working on different aspects of it, then it’s not such a problem if one or two of us aren’t there. That is the benefit of having four people involved. When we were first starting we spoke to some people we knew who had a company already and they said it’s so beneficial to have more than one person leading things. And also creatively it means we have four different brains working on a project which is awesome.
It’s a struggle but 100% worth it!
ME: All four of you did the 3 year acting course at RWCMD, but what are your views on the university vs. drama school vs. not doing any formal training debate? It’s something that’s being talked about by young people a lot at the moment because it’s so expensive; obviously if you hadn’t done your particular course you never would’ve met each other so that’s a big thing, but what are your general feelings, say if you were finishing school now? Would you still make the same decisions?
CHARLOTTE: The main thing I would say to anyone in that situation is that if there is anything else that you’re considering you would like to do rather than acting, then I would go to uni or to whichever other place you need to train (or not). If you want to be an actor and you’re sure that it’s the only thing on earth that will make you happy, then go to drama school. And try for as many years as it takes, and you can bear/afford, to get in. That’s my advice!
BELLA: I’m quite different…don’t get me wrong, I LOVED Royal Welsh, it was the best experience of my life and I met the most incredible people and I would 100% do it again. My only thing is that I think it is so dependent on the person. Some people have the opportunity that straight out of school an agent will like them, and it can just happen and in some ways starting younger is really beneficial. However for me coming out of school and having an agent possibly interested but saying that they wouldn’t take me if I went to drama school, I had to make a decision, and I knew personally that I needed drama school. I just knew that; I had so many kinks and quirks (not in a good way!) that I had to work out, and I hope that’s what drama school did, so for me it was exactly what I needed. I also think it’s really important which drama school you choose. So often people are like “I just want to get in somewhere,” and actually I don’t think it should be like that… and I’ve known friends who’ve gone somewhere and haven’t been happy there or have left. I think you’ve got to have the feeling about that place, and if you don’t have that certainty I wouldn’t do it. I mean it’s hard to say because you won’t actually know much about a drama school until you’re there, you never really know what it entails, but when I went to Royal Welsh I just had this feeling in my tummy and it was by far my top choice. I loved meeting the teachers and the way they auditioned us, and it was almost like that love at first sight sort of feeling.
CHARLOTTE: Definitely. And there’s something to be said for not being snobby too, like don’t just pick RADA, LAMDA, Bristol Old Vic because you think they’re the best three drama schools or someone’s told you they are; go and audition for as many places as you can afford so you get those vibes and you’re being open minded.
BELLA: Each drama school offers something different and will suit different kinds of people. The fact that you have to pay to audition, and it’s expensive, is difficult, but I would say go and visit as many as you can because you do get a feeling when you see the building, when you meet the teachers and the students that go there. If you have any friends that are already at drama school definitely contact them and see what their personal experiences have been like and then maybe go and visit them at the school. I think that’s the best way of getting a taster really.
ME: It was exactly the same for me when I was choosing my uni, like you were saying when I went there and had my interview and spoke to lecturers and students, something just clicked and I knew it was where I wanted to go.
BELLA: I think you can apply that to any form of study really. And it also means that when you go through rough times, because at drama school there just are rough times for everyone, it means you then don’t have a doubt that you’re still in the right place which is so important.
I do know people that didn’t go to drama school who are amazing actors, like I don’t by any means think you have to go to drama school to be a good actor, and there are so many classes and short course you can do instead… but for me I definitely needed it.
CHARLOTTE: It’s also really good it terms of getting you out into the industry, making contacts etc.… like a lot of people purely – and they’ll admit this – go to drama school just to get an agent or so that casting directors will see them. Because you do get a lot more opportunities for that kind of thing.
BELLA: Especially at your showcase; I remember for ours there were something like 300 industry members watching us at the Royal Court, it was terrifying but amazing!
ME: Something I didn’t actually have down as a question but I think is important to talk about, is the whole situation of, like you said, ‘getting’ an agent when you leave. That’s something that I know can be extremely stressful. Can you both talk a bit about your experiences? Did it happen straight away for you or did you have to write to lots of agencies after you left and then manage to find one?
BELLA: I left without an agent, which originally I had worried about happening , but I knew so many people who had left without agents that were great, that in the end I wasn’t that bothered about it because I knew it wasn’t necessarily a reflection on me or my ability. I think if you leave without an agent it isn’t the end of the world and you can still get signed. You can get auditions by yourself, you can put yourself up for stuff, and you can find your own agent. And it only takes one job for you to get signed off the back of it. Agents aren’t the be all and end all, but it is very helpful to have one. I signed with one and then when I was in a play at the National I invited other people along and was signed again off the back of that, so I think you just work with what you’ve got.
CHARLOTTE: I was really lucky and signed with an agent straight after my showcase, and she is now one of my favourite people in the world. I was just so, so lucky.
BELLA: You got the perfect match.
CHARLOTTE: Yeah, she’s an awesome agent, she really appreciates my writing and the fact that I’m a comic, but that I’d also do or die for acting. She just gets all that about me so I’m super lucky.
BELLA: That’s another thing that’s so important, like with the drama school thing. If you get a gut feeling that an agent isn’t right for you, I’d genuinely say don’t go for it, because bad relationships with agents are so poisonous. They’re so unpleasant and can really knock your confidence. I honestly think you’re better off on your own if it’s not the right relationship. You’ve got to treat it almost like going out with someone, if it’s not healthy for you then get out of it! I mean, like Char and her agent, like you just knew on day one that it was a great fit.
CHARLOTTE: Yeah she just has this amazing energy, it’s like what you get on stage sometimes with someone, it’s a great feeling.
ME: And what about any preconceptions you had about the industry, have they changed in the two years that you’ve been graduated and working professionally? Is there anything that you’ve been particularly surprised by or is it pretty much what you expected?
CHARLOTTE: The thing Royal Welsh was great at was that they never sugar-coated what it was going to be like going into the industry. They gave us a very realistic view of how hard we would have to work and that it might take a while to get a job. That’s certainly how I felt leaving, that I knew it was going to be hard.
BELLA: They definitely didn’t stroke anyone’s ego, so you didn’t leave thing it’s going to happen for me because I’m amazing, you just go, it’s a hard industry, and a lot of the time it is to do with luck I think, I know that’s a matter of opinion, but I do think sometimes it’s just to do with being in the right place at the right time; also times change and what’s cool current one moment can change overnight.
CHARLOTTE: One thing that I don’t think I fully appreciated before leaving was how much confidence has to do with it. Like one day just thinking, “I’m going to do this show tomorrow”, then doing it and maybe getting something amazing from it. You just don’t know; believing in yourself is such a big deal.
BELLA: I agree. And in regards to your question, I think before I went to drama school I had a very generalised view of what acting as a job is like. I think it’s really hard to know; everyone will always tell you it’s hard, I remember telling my mum when I was younger that I wanted to be an actor and her saying, “that’s not a real job.” So I pushed it out of my mind for ages, but it was my gut instinct and I just had to go with it. I think everyone tells you it’s hard, but you just don’t fully understand how hard anything is until you experience it yourself. It’s like…not that I’m comparing acting to childbirth but it’s the same way that people tell you, it’s really hard, this is what you go through, but you can’t understand it until you’ve actually given birth!
ME: Great analogy!
BELLA: It’s one of those industries that gives and takes so much. There are days when I feel on top of the world, and then there are days when I feel super low, and that is just the way it is. It’s a bit of an emotional rollercoaster of an industry, you’re not constantly working but then when you get a job that you love – like for me working at the National was a dream job and I never thought it would happen – I feel like those sort of moments are what you work for as an actor. Denise Gough – god I sound so obsessed with her! But she always says it’s so important to not feel like you’re constantly waiting around, you have to have a life. Don’t get me wrong you have to put all your time and energy and invest in acting as much as you can, but you have to have a life outside of it, so it’s not the be all and end all.
CHARLOTTE: There’s definitely that fresh graduate vibe though isn’t there, like you’re all sparkly and spangly. A bit too fresh!
BELLA: I think a lot of the time you do have expectations of yourself and you can’t help but try and picture your future. Sadly it’s an industry where you can’t do that. I went to an amazing workshop recently with the Kevin Spacey Foundation, and I remember someone there saying, “I don’t understand in this industry how you’re supposed to have a plan, like how can you make a plan as an actor?” And the guy said “I’m not asking you to say I’m going to be Jennifer Lawrence in 3 years, you just have to be very honest with yourself in what you perceive success to be. Give yourself a timeline and if by this point you haven’t done this, then don’t do this job.” And I was like, OK, wow, brutal, but actually really great advice. And I think often in this industry the word quit is used really negatively, as in you’re just giving up, but the way he said it wasn’t… I think giving yourself that timeline, those ambitions and goals (which don’t have to be huge things), really makes you give your full force to it, and in the end you can’t be disappointed because you’ve given it everything. And I think it was just really great because I went away and I was like OK, what do I perceive success to be? And I was like, I perceive success as happiness. But then I had to think about what I need to be happy. Like, do I need a certain amount of money so I’m not struggling all the time, or having to do waitressing jobs, or going in and out of lots of different things?
So if you’re really honest with yourself about what you need, I think it’s so healthy as an actor to have an awareness of that, and aim for that, and do it with every bit of your body. I think there can’t be any negatives to that really.
ME: A big controversy at the moment is how women are being treated within the arts, in terms of our struggle for equality, the lack of it I guess. There’s that campaign ‘Equality for Actresses’, lots of people have been wearing the badges, it’s definitely something that’s extremely prevalent right now. It would be interesting to hear a bit about your personal experiences as women working in this industry; is that equality issue something you’ve noticed or felt?
CHARLOTTE: I mean firstly, we’re incredibly privileged to be white women in this industry, and women from decent backgrounds with enough dollar to start us off sort of thing. We are aware of that privilege and actually we don’t want to be the kind of female focussed theatre company that isn’t pro intersectional feminism. We want to be aware of, or to make ourselves aware of the state of equality, or inequality, we don’t want to…I mean, at the end of the day it’s about equality, whether it’s gender equality, diversity equality…
BELLA: Or disability equality. That’s a huge thing at the moment which I don’t think gets enough representation at all. I think we’re fighting our fights for women and diversity, but I’m hearing almost nothing about disability and I think that’s a massive shame, and actually we should all be doing as much as we can to highlight that. Because I do think it’s incredibly hard to be in this industry if you have a disability in any way.
CHARLOTTE: But actually from our perspectives as women in the industry, we’ve been to our fair share of auditions where I suppose…I mean Ellie has a great story about wearing makeup in an audition. She ends up in a lot of auditions where the role is just to be the girlfriend, or the token woman, where in the character description her whole being, it’s just totally about what she looks like. And we get that a lot, we hear about that a lot from other women too.
BELLA: I think it’s something that we see a lot in the industry, and people are becoming much more aware of it now which is great. I remember when I first came out of drama school and was having quite a few meetings with different agents, one of them said she rarely takes girls because it’s a lot harder to get women work, and there’s a lot more women than men in the industry but there’s also a lot less roles for women, especially less in depth, or good quality roles I guess. By that I mean, real women, roles that show how women actually are which I think is disappointing. Again I think that’s on the change, on the move, but it’s going to be a long, slow change. I mean I think at the moment people are looking for a quick fix when really the best thing to do is to create more parts for women, I think we’ve got to go down to the root of the issue which is the scripts themselves, and I think we need more women writing. And I think as a company that is what we’re really aiming to do, like Charlotte writing us this play with five fantastic female roles.
CHARLOTTE: Ultimately as well I think it would be so nice to make Siberian Lights a creative place for women of all ages, because I think the way ageing is seen is one of the nastiest aspects about this industry. And I think as hard as it is for us to find work, it’s ten times harder for older women to find roles that are challenging or exciting.
BELLA: Also for mothers, women who have taken a break from the industry to have a child, and then feel like they can’t work anymore or won’t be able to work anymore. And that’s so terrifying, there are just so many things that can remove you from the industry like that.
ME: Finally I want to ask you for the best advice about the industry you’ve been given either by a friend or a professional, or just someone you’ve worked with, that’s stuck with you and that you’ve really taken on board?
CHARLOTTE: For generally getting through, I think, “don’t panic”, is my biggest advice, because as soon as you start to panic, and in this industry it is so easy to just go “Ahhhh! Nothing is happening like I thought, blah blah blah”. Actors deal with a LOT of mental health issues as a result of the inconsistently of this lifestyle, the lack of routine, lack of money, and so I think the key is to take a deep breath and think, if I’m in this for the long run then I’ve got to find a way of not panicking and controlling those stress levels…
BELLA: The art of not giving a fuck!
CHARLOTTE: Exactly…the coolest people care the least! But are still really good at their jobs…
BELLA: Hmm that was a really good one… I think I would say find yourself a creative outlet of some kind, whether it’s a hobby on the side, or like getting together with a group of friends and doing an improv session, booking out a room and reading a play, it doesn’t matter what it is. I guess that’s what we’re doing with this company really. You would be so surprised to see how much that reminds you of what you can do, it helps keep up your skills, and also it will help you feel connected to other people in this industry. And when you turn on that switch, that’s basically what it is, it makes living in London as an actor less lonely and scary, and more social. Also I’m someone who hates networking, even when I know I should go up to that person or I should say this or that, but I just don’t want to – but through this company I’ve found myself accidentally networking so many times, which I think is actually almost the best way because then you’re talking to someone because you think they’re incredible…
CHARLOTTE: And you’re being completely genuine because you’re just looking for people to work with who are excited about what they do and amazingly talented at the same time.
BELLA: So don’t panic and keep working creatively in any way you can!
ME: Thanks ladies!
If you would like to find out more about Siberian Lights and what they do they can be contacted on the links below: